Email Tips: Top 10 Strategies for Writing Effective Email

JerzWritingE-text > Email Tips

Follow these email etiquette tips in order to write more effective email.

While Milennials typically prefer texting, the improvised, back-and-forth pattern we expect of texting conversations differs greatly from the pre-planned, more self-contained messages most professionals expect in the workplace.

If you are planning an outing with friends, you expect multiple rapid exchanges asking for clarification and providing corrections on the fly. Since you are usually texting somebody you already know well, about a shared interest, you don’t need to provide much context.

But most professionals do not want to engage in a leisurely back-and-forth in order to get their work done. They want to clear this item from their inbox, perhaps by passing it to an assistant or kicking it upstream, without having to ask the sender “I dunno, what do you think?” or “What did you mean by that emoji?”

Originally written by Jessica Bauer in 2000; expanded and maintained by Dennis G. Jerz

Writing Effective Email: Top 10 Tips

  1. Write a meaningful subject line.
  2. Keep the message focused.
  3. Avoid attachments.
  4. Identify yourself clearly.
  5. Be kind — don’t flame.
  6. Proofread.
  7. Don’t assume privacy.
  8. Distinguish between formal and informal situations.
  9. Respond Promptly.
  10. Show Respect and Restraint.

1. Write a meaningful subject line.

Before you hit “send,” take a moment to write a subject line that accurately describes the content, giving your reader a concrete reason to open your message. A vague or blank subject line is a missed opportunity to inform or persuade your reader.

Remember — your message is not the only one in your recipient’s mailbox. A clear subject line will help a busy professional to decide that your email is worthwhile.

Bad ExampleSubject: [Blank]
A blank subject line suggests that your name in the “From” line is all your recipient should need in order to make you message a top priority. That could come across as arrogant, or at the very least, thoughtless. A well-chosen subject line is an important opportunity to inform and persuade your reader.
Bad Example Subject: “Important! Read Immediately!!
Rather than brashly announcing that the secret contents of your mystery message are inexplicably important…
Good ExampleAll Cars in the Lower Lot Will Be Towed in 1 Hour.”
…write a functional subject line that actually conveys the important idea.
Bad ExampleSubject: “Quick question.
If the question is quick, why not just ask it in the subject line? This subject line is hardly useful.
Iffy Example Subject: “Follow-up about Friday
Fractionally better — provided that the recipient remembers why a follow-up was necessary.
Iffy Example Subject: “That file you requested.
Many email users get scads of virus-laden spam with vague titles like this. The more specific you are, the more likely your recipient’s spam-blocker will let your message through.
Good Example Subject: “10 confirmed for Friday… will we need a larger room?
Upon reading this revised, informative subject line, the recipient immediately starts thinking about the size of the room, not about whether it will be worth it to open the email.

2. Keep the message focused.

Why are you writing? Are you responding to a request? Apologizing for an error on your part? Asking for the recipient to take some action for you?

  • Purpose: Any textbook on business and professional writing will include examples of complaint and adjustment letters, proposal letters, progress reports, application letters, and so forth.
  • Directness: You probably don’t need to open with “Dear Ms. Jones,” engage in personal chit-chat, and close with “Yours Truly.” (If you really want to be that formal, send a letter on paper instead.)
  • Organization: Readers will often get partway through a complex message, hit “reply” as soon as they have something to contribute, and forget to read the rest. That’s human nature.
    • Number your points in more complex message. (Start with a clear statement of how many parts there are to your message.)
    • Split unrelated points into separate, purposeful emails.
      • If you send all your employees a message that only relates to some of them, a lot of people will waste time reading the whole thing, in order to determine whether any part of it applies to them.
      • Other people will give up as soon as they find any detail that does not apply to them. (Again, this is human nature.)
  • Politeness: Please and thank-you are still important, but wordiness wastes your reader’s time (which is rude).
    Bad ExampleIndirect and wasteful: “Dearest Arnold: I would be very much obliged if, at your earliest convenience, you could send me the current password for the website. I look forward to your response. Have a nice day! Yours Truly, Philomena.”
    Iffy Example Blunt to the point of rudeness: “Need the password for the website.”
    If you get a message like this, you might assume the sender trusts you and really needs your help; however, if you send a message like this, you might  appear needy and panicky. Is that how you want to come across? Think about it.
    Good Example Urgent, yet polite: “Site is down, but I can’t troubleshoot without the new password. Do you know it?”

To help your reader focus on your message: keep your text readable.

  • Proofread, especially when your message asks your recipient to do work for you. All-caps comes across as shouting, and no-caps makes you look like a lazy teenager. Regardless of your intention, people will respond accordingly.
    • If you are in middle school, a gushing statement “thx 4 ur help 2day ur gr8!″ may make a busy professional smile — or shudder.
    • Often, the sweetness of the gesture won’t be enough. u want ur prof r ur boss 2 think u cant spl? LOL ;-)
  • Write short paragraphs, separated by blank lines. Most people find unbroken blocks of text boring, or even intimidating. Take the time to format your message for the ease of your reader.
  • Avoid fancy typefaces. Don’t depend upon bold font or large size to add nuances. Your recipient’s email reader may not have all the features that yours does. In a pinch, use asterisks to show *emphasis*.

3. Avoid attachments.

Rather than forcing you reader to download an attachment and open it in a separate program, you will probably get faster results if you just copy-paste the most important part of the document into the body of your message.

Bad ExampleTo: All 1000 Employees
From: Eager Edgar
Subject: A helpful book everyone should read
——–
Hello, everyone. I’ve attached a PDF that I think you’ll all find very useful. This is the third time I sent it the file — the version I sent yesterday had a typo on page 207, so I’ve sent the whole thing again. Since some of you noted that the large file size makes it a bit awkward, I’ve also attached each chapter as a separate document. Let me know what you think!Attachments:

  • Big Honking File.pdf (356MB)
  • BHF Cover.pdf (25MB)
  • BHF Chapter 1.pdf (35MB)
  • [… ]
Okay, raise your hands… how many of us would delete the above message immediately, without looking at *any* of those attachments?
Good ExampleTo: Bessie Professional
From: Morris Ponsybil
Subject: Email tips — a subject for an office workshop?
—-
Bessie, I came across some tips on streamlining professional communications. Has anyone volunteered to present at the office workshop next month? Let me know if you’d like me to run a little seminar (2o minutes?) on using email effectively.Below, I’ll paste the table of contents. I’ll send you the whole thing as a PDF if you want it.Table of Contents

  1. Write a meaningful subject line.
  2. Keep the message focused and readable.
  3. Avoid attachments.
  4. […]

Recognize that attachments

  • consume bandwidth (do you want your recipient to ignore your request so as to avoid paying for a mobile download?)
  • can carry viruses
  • don’t always translate correctly for people who read their email on portable devices.
  • may require your recipient to have certain software installed (such as Microsoft Publisher or Apple’s Pages)

4. Identify yourself clearly.

If you telephoned someone outside your closest circle, someone who probably wouldn’t recognize your voice, you would probably say something like “Hello, Ms. Wordsworth, this is Sally Griffin.” A formal “Dear Ms. Wordsworth” salutation is not necessary for routine workplace communication.

When we send text messages to our friends, we expect a lot of back-and-forth. But professionals who use email don’t enjoy getting a cryptic message from an email address they don’t recognize.

While a routine email does not require a formal salutation such as “Dear Ms. Wordsworth,” ask yourself whether the person you are writing knows you well enough to recognize your email address.

Bad ExampleTo: Professor Blinderson
From: FuZzYkItTy2000@hotmail.com
Subject: [Blank]Yo goin 2 miss class whats the homework
Professor Blinderson will probably reply, “Please let me know your name and which class you’re in, so that I can respond meaningfully. I don’t recognize the address FuZzYkItTy2000@hotmail.com.”
Good Example To: Professor Blinderson
From: m.ponsybil@gmail.com
Subject: EL227 Absence, Oct 10Hello, Prof. Blinderson. This is Morris Ponsybil, from EL227 section 2.This morning, I just found out that the curling team has advanced to the playoffs, so I’m going to be out of town on the 10th.According to the syllabus, it looks like I will miss a paper workshop and the discussion of Chapter 10. May I email you my Chapter 10 discussion questions before I leave town? And could I come to your office hour at 2pm on the 12th, in order to discuss the paper? I’ve asked Cheryl Jones to take notes for me.Thank you very much. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.
If you are asking the other person to do you a favor, providing the right information will give him or her a good reason to decide in your favor. In this case, Morris Ponsybil shows his professor he cares enough about the class to propose a solution to the problem his absence will cause.

When contacting someone cold, be polite and brief. If you are asking for a stranger to do something for you for free, be prepared to hear nothing in response.

Even if you already have a connection with the person you are contacting, a little context is helpful. Every fall, I get emails from “bad_boy2315@yahoo.com” or “FuZzYkItTy2000@hotmail.com” who ask a question about “class” and don’t sign their real names.

If you are following up on a face-to-face contact, you might appear too timid if you assume your recipient doesn’t remember you; but you can drop casual hints to jog their memory: “I enjoyed talking with you about usability testing in the elevator the other day.”

While formal phrases such as “Dear Professor Sneedlewood” and “Sincerely Yours,” are unnecessary in email, when contacting someone outside your own organization, you should write a signature line that includes your full name and at least a link to a blog or online profile page (something that does not require your recipient to log in first).

5. Be kind. Don’t flame.

Think before you click “Send.”

If you find yourself writing in anger, save a draft, go get a cup of coffee, and imagine that tomorrow morning someone has taped your email outside your door. Would your associates and friends be shocked by your language or attitude?

Or would they be impressed by how you kept your cool, how you ignored the bait when your correspondent stooped to personal attacks, and how you carefully explained your position (or admitted your error, or asked for a reconsideration, etc.)>

Will you have to work with this person for several months? Do you want a copy of your bitter screed to surface years from now, when you want a letter of recommendation?

Bad Example@!$% &*@!! &(*!
Go ahead… write it, revise it, liven it up with traditional Lebanese curses, print it out, throw darts on it, and scribble on it with crayon. Do whatever you need in order to get it out of your system. Just don’t hit “Send” while you’re still angry.
Good Example From: Clair Haddad
To: Ann O. Ying
Subject: Re: Ongoing Problems with ProjectI’m not sure how to respond, since last week you told Sue that you didn’t need any extra training, so I cancelled Wednesday’s workshop. I can CC Sue in on this thread if you like, since she’s the one who will have to approve the budget if we reschedule it. Meanwhile, I can loan you my copies of the manual, or we can look into shifting the work to someone else. Let me know what you’d like me to do next.—Original Message –
From: Ann O. Ying
I tried all morning to get in touch with you. Couldn’t you find a few minutes in between meetings to check your messages? I’m having a rough time on this project, and I’m sorry if this is last-minute, but I’ve never done this before and I think the least you could do is take some time to explain it again.
If your recipient has just lambasted you with an angry message, rather than reply with a point-by-point rebuttal, you can always respond with a brief note like this, which

  1. casually invokes the name of someone the angry correspondent is likely to respect (in order to diffuse any personal antagonism that may otherwise have developed) and
  2. refocuses the conversation on solutions (in this conversation, Ann has already dug herself into a hole, and Clair has nothing to gain by joining her there)

6. Proofread.

If you are asking someone else to do work for you, take the time to make your message look professional.

While your spell checker won’t catch every mistake, at the very least it will catch a few typos. If you are sending a message that will be read by someone higher up on the chain of command (a superior or professor, for instance), or if you’re about to mass-mail dozens or thousands of people, take an extra minute or two before you hit “send”. Show a draft to a close associate, in order to see whether it actually makes sense.

7. Don’t assume privacy.

A good motto: praise in public, and criticize in private. Don’t send anything over email that you wouldn’t want posted — with your name attached — in the break room.

Email is not secure. Just as random pedestrians could reach into a physical mailbox and intercept envelopes, a curious hacker, a malicious criminal, and your IT department can probably read any and all email messages in your work account.

If you stretch the truth in an email (downplaying a problem, leaving out an important detail, etc.), you’re creating a written record that your recipient can (and will) use to determine whether

  • you are uninformed about the truth
  • you are informed but deliberately misrepresenting the truth
  • your confused and conflicting emails mean you aren’t a reliable source for determining the truth

8. Distinguish between formal and informal situations.

When you are writing to a friend or a close colleague, it is OK to use “smilies” :-) , abbreviations (IIRC for “if I recall correctly”, LOL for “laughing out loud,” etc.) and nonstandard punctuation and spelling (like that found in instant messaging or chat rooms).

These linguistic shortcuts are generally signs of friendly intimacy, like sharing cold pizza with a family friend. If you tried to share that same cold pizza with a first date, or a visiting dignitary, you would give off the impression that you did not really care about the meeting. By the same token, don’t use informal language when your reader expects a more formal approach.

Always know the situation, and write accordingly.

9. Respond Promptly.

If you want to appear professional and courteous, make yourself available to your online correspondents. Even if your reply is, “Sorry, I’m too busy to help you now,” at least your correspondent won’t be waiting in vain for your reply.

10. Show Respect and Restraint

Many a flame war has been started by someone who hit “reply all” instead of “reply.”

While most people know that email is not private, it is good form to ask the sender before forwarding a personal message. If someone emails you a request, it is perfectly acceptable to forward the request to a person who can help — but forwarding a message in order to ridicule the sender is tacky.

Use BCC instead of CC when sending sensitive information to large groups. (For example, a professor sending a bulk message to students who are in danger of failing, or an employer telling unsuccessful applicants that a position is no longer open.) The name of everyone in the CC list goes out with the message, but the names of people on the BCC list (“blind carbon copy”) are hidden. Put your own name in the “To” box if your mail editor doesn’t like the blank space.

Be tolerant of other people’s etiquette blunders. If you think you’ve been insulted, quote the line back to your sender and add a neutral comment such as, “I’m not sure how to interpret this… could you elaborate?”

Sometimes Email is Too Fast!

A colleague once asked me for help, and then almost immediately sent a follow-up informing me she had solved the problem on her own.

But before reading her second message, I replied at length to the first. Once I learned that there was no need for any reply, I worried that my response would seem pompous, so I followed up with a quick apology:

“Should have paid closer attention to my email.”

What I meant to say was “[I] should have looked more carefully at my[list of incoming] email [before replying],” but I could tell from my colleague’s terse reply that she had interpreted it as if I was criticizing her.

If I hadn’t responded so quickly to the first message, I would have saved myself the time I spent writing a long answer to an obsolete question. If I hadn’t responded so quickly to the second message, I might not have alienated the person I had been so eager to help. –DGJ


References & Further Reading

  • Alsop, Stewart. “My Rules of Polite Digital Communication.” Fortune. 142.2 (10 July 2000): p 76. Online. Academic Search Elite. 9 October 2000.
  • Cronin, Jennifer. “Netiquette, schmetiquette.” Des Moines Business Record 16.24 (12 June 2000): p 11. Online. MasterFILE Premier. 9 October 2000.
  • “Email Etiquette.” I Will Follow Services. 1997. <http://www.iwillfollow.com/emailetiquette.html>. 9 October 2000.
  • Nucifora, Alf. “Use etiquette when messaging via email.” Memphis Business Journal 21.51 (14 April 2000): p23. Online. MasterFILE Premier. 9 October 2000.
  • Thorton, Sam. “Rules and Regulations: Email Etiquette.” 29 April 1998. <http://www.lse.ac.uk/Depts/ITS/rules/email.htm>. 9 October
    2000.

12 Dec 2000 — first submitted by Bauer
23 Jan 2001 — posted by Jerz
16 Feb 2001 — updated by Jerz
25 Oct 2001 — minor updates by Jerz
16 Apr 2003 — further updates & changes by Jerz
10 Jun 2004 — strengthened advice against attachments
28 Aug 2004 — trimmed a few minor redundancies
19 May 2008 — updated items 1-3
20 May 2008 — updated items 2-4
23 Jun 2008 — corrected typos identified by Bob Folline
04 Mar 2010 — adding considerations for mobile email users
08 Mar 2011 — formatting changes
20 Dec 2011 — changed “e-mail” to “email” throughout
03 May 2012— very minor tweaks
22 May 2013— updated info on attachments; minor tweaks to layout and phrasing
02 Jun 2015 — updated items 2&3; minor tweaks throughout
18 Jun 2017 — modest tweaks; added references to emojis; removed a dated reference to “PDAs

311 thoughts on “Email Tips: Top 10 Strategies for Writing Effective Email

  1. This is very informative and helpful. Nothing looks more unprofessional than an email that looks like a text.

  2. another tip would be to avoid putting the recipient(s) email address in until you are ready to send it, this means that it is not possible for you to accidentally send an email to someone before you are ready.

  3. I LOVE the example you gave for number 7 on what NOT to do – and how it makes you look if you do. Donald Trump is a good ” horrible warning” of the consequences. Thank you!

    • I used his name in this handout long before he announced himself as a presidential candidate. From the looks of things, Hillary Clinton could also stand to learn a few things about professional email. Email tips are bi-partisan.

  4. Pingback: Internet: the Grandparent’s Guide to Learning It

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